July 30, 2013

Benevolent Sexism and Guy Kawasaki

As you are undoubtedly aware, I was at BlogHer last weekend. And let me tell you, it was an amazing experience.

One of my favorite events was the Keynote with Guy Kawasaki. Right up until the Q and A.

You see, he was talking about his new book, about self publishing versus traditional publishing, and just sitting down and WRITING. He had me hooked. I kept thinking, "You know what? I'm going to go buy that book." And then it took a turn.

Dani of Martinis and Minivans stepped to the mic first. She introduced herself and her blog, and then went forward with the question. And before he answered her, Guy said this,

"You women writers come up with the best blog names."

I froze in my seat. I looked over at Janelle of Renegade Mothering and asked, "Did he really just say that?"

She nodded.

Here's the thing about whenever you put the word "woman" or "lady" or "chick" in front of a totally unisex description. It's essentially the same as saying, "I don't want to sound sexist, BUT..."

I bundled my feminist angst back into my oversized handbag and managed to tone down my frustration, but it was difficult. The way he was looking at Dani, and then at the next questioner, and then the next...

Oh tumblr, you have a gif for everything.
I gritted my teeth and listened. He was saying useful things, things that applied directly to me. Not as a woman, not as a "woman writer," but as a WRITER.

And then, as he discussed social media, he said this about Pinterest:

"I've got the wrong chromosomes for that."

And I kind of lost it.

After all, I recently had the good fortune to have a conversation about publishing and viral success with Paul Angone, author of "101 Secrets For Your 20s." Which has had so much success almost entirely because of Pinterest. And yeah, he's a dude.

And I know for a fact that he's not the only person with a penis at that massive social networking site.

And as I gritted my teeth and fumed about the Pinterest comment, Guy Kawasaki one-upped himself. He claimed he didn't have much to do with Twitter, but that he had a woman who was in charge of that. He warned the audience not to "steal her," from him, language that implies possession of another human being, and then told us that behind every great man...

You can fill in the rest.

There's a word for this kind of sexism. In fact, there are two. It's called "Benevolent Sexism," or "Pedestal Sexism." Basically, it's when men (and not always men) hold up this idea that women are somehow "better," and therefore not equal to men. It's why some women get bothered when men ostentatiously hold doors for them, imply that they are delicate flowers that need to be protected by men.

I walked out. And yes, I spent the rest of the day (and pretty much every day since) having the occasional irate conversation about the tone of that keynote.

But here's the thing- it wasn't SO bad. It wasn't like Guy Kawasaki walked into an inherently feminist event and told everyone there, including hundreds of cooking, shopping, mothering, and household-tips blogs, that he was glad we knew our place.

He didn't imply that writing and publishing- his domain- was something we shouldn't aim for. He didn't explicitly call women, "honey," or "little lady." He didn't leer at my chest and wolf whistle.

But what he did was illustrate that still, even somewhere as profoundly feminist as a BlogHer conference, the culture of sexism in which we live is inescapable. That it takes a constant self awareness on behalf of men and women both to realize that it's not just what you say, it's how you say it.

"Women writers" don't come up with the best names. "Writers" do. That's why they write.

Pinterest isn't only for people with vaginae. I'm pretty sure I don't have to scan my uterus to log in.

I'm also pretty sure that despite how much work she's doing to jump ahead of comments like mine, Guy Kawasaki's social media person is very much opposed to the idea that he somehow owns her.

These aren't the things he meant to say, but they are the things he said.

And I at least intend to keep calling out this type of subtle, pervasive sexism where I find it.

...I'll also probably still buy Guy's book. Because it sounds great. Even if he is a "man writer."


  1. I love how you always make me think. You made excellent points - as per usual. I, too, would have been upset to hear all those comments. I get where you're coming from, for sure.

    1. Aw, thanks! Praise from you means a lot. :)

      I know I'm more sensitive to this sort of language than many people, but I'm not alone. And I do believe that when we call out this kind of thing, it can make a difference.

  2. Oooh, wow, lady. That was really something. (And may I just say, vaginae! Love it!) I must admit, I cringed when he said that, and then immediately moved on because he's charming. And the more I think about it, I realize that I am definitely programmed to cringe, roll eyes, and move on when benevolent sexism happens. Thanks for pointing it out so astutely. I have to say, I loved him and thought he was awesome, but you make a very good point. Oh, and also- I just met you in person! SO cool.

    1. It was awesome meeting you too! And you'rr right, we're totaly trained to roll our eyes and ignore it. If I hadn't JUST been engaged in a conversation about privilege I might have let it slip by too.

  3. What I don't understand is how pointing out the absolute sexism of Guy's remarks are equal to bashing him. The problem with sexism (or racism) is that it IS systemic. It's not only perpetuated by evil people. We can point out his problematic language *and* admire him. We just need to look at his remarks and hopefully have a discussion around them. Hopefully learn from them.

    Guy saying that he has the wrong chromosomes for Pinterest is exactly like me saying that I have the wrong chromosomes for NASCAR. It is making assumptions about his personality based on his genitalia, and we need to avoid those assumptions across the board.

    With that being said, Guy *was* speaking at BlogHer - a conference for women bloggers. How do we create a place for women bloggers without inviting benevolent sexism?

    Many good things to think about and discuss. I appreciate what you have brought to the conversation with this post. Many thanks.

    1. I sort of assume that we create events like BlogHer to avoid the sexism, benevolent or otherwise, in the rest of our culture. Mr. Kawasaki no doubt has no intention to imply that women are "less-than", but PARTICULARLY when addressing such an overtly feminist crowd, he should have taken more care with his language choices.

  4. I too have to thank you for making me think. I don't know how I would have reacted to his comments if I was in the audience? Especially the first about "women writers;" after all he was at a women's conference, talking to an audience of mainly women. But then I have to wonder if I have just been so accustomed to "benevolent sexism" that my radar doesn't really pick it up anymore. I think you make some excellent points. Thanks!!

    1. I'm just so happy to be having a civilized conversation about it! If I can help show that this language is damaging, maybe I can help put a stop to it.

  5. I saw a similar piece of the Huffington Post about Guy's comments. And I was there when he said it. I appreciate your take on it, though I didn't feel the spark of outrage that I know you and other writers felt. Does he think that "Dad or Alive" is clever? Does he think that "Single Dad Laughing" is the bomb? This is all making me think hard about what's underneath a compliment and the concept of benevolent sexism. After all, had he said, "wow. people of color have the best blog names," it would be offensive, right?

    1. Precisely! And I agree, Dad blogs also have GREAT names! And there are some wonderful names for cooking blogs run by men (and it's a remarkably large proportion of them that are!).

      It's not about what he said, which was obviously intended to be kind, flattering, and supportive. It's HOW he said it, which was paternalistic, condescending, and with a strong sense of male privilege.

  6. You are absolutely correct; benevolent sexism is rampant in our society. Moreover, we cannot change things unless we can discuss them in an informed, mature and civilized manner. What the reaction to this whole "controversy" demonstrates is that we have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse over difficult matters. Or just about any topic, really. Which is, in my opinion, sad.

    You have demonstrated the upmost integrity in your response to the situation. And, as always, have shared a thoughtful point of view in a respectful manner. Kudos to you!

  7. I think, as a woman writer, you will need these pens: http://www.amazon.com/BIC-Cristal-1-0mm-Black-MSLP16-Blk/dp/B004F9QBE6. Read the reviews, this pen is amazing. ;-)

    1. OMG! I wrote a review for those pens!!!

    2. ROFLOL!!! I remember reading that. Whenever I feel down I go to the review section of Bic for Her and I instantaneously feel better! That's how good those pens are!

  8. I didn't hear his keynote(I didn't go to any sessions, actually- just walked around and met people like you xo). But I did hear some of the backlash. I wasn't sure what to make of it and I'm glad that you wrote about it because I feel like I can trust your point of view.

    I did cringe for a second because I've threatened people that they cannot take away someone who works for me because I would die without her. Maybe I should rethink that. Even though seriously- I'd die without her. ;)

    1. So long as when you say it she knows it's meant in a spirit of friendship, I'm sure it's fine. :)

  9. I can't help but wonder if he had some misguided idea that what he was saying would be clever within the context of the venue. He's talking to women so maybe he thought it appropriate to make gender-related jokes? Which is just wrong, not to mention troubling.

  10. Did not know there was a name for that! The funny thing is, I also just heard Guy speak recently, at the uPublish conference (part of the Book Expo in NYC). He was the keynote speaker there also. And during his address he spoke about someone who helped him with his latest book (APE) and hesitated to reveal his name. He said, "I don't want any of you to steal him away from me." Perhaps he has an ownership thing...
    Great post, thanks for making me think.

  11. I *hate* that the men I work with always hold doors and elevators for me. We are way past chivalry, and as the only woman usually involved, it makes me feel called out and noticed in a way I'm uncomfortable with. It's also not going to change, but I cringe a bit every time it happens.

    I happened to skip this session...kind of glad I did.

  12. I was there, my jaw was hanging open. I kept expecting him to reverse or at least alter his course.



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